Spain: Editorial Planeta: 2021. 168 pages.
If we could put together a collection of all the pains suffered during Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, no collecting tool would be up to the job: a time capsule would be useless; personalizing and thereby embalming the pain would be useless; even writing a novel that endorses one’s personal pain would be useless if we meant to pass a collection of pains down to future generations. However, Antes que llegue la luz is no triumph in capturing pain; it is, rather, a triumph in documenting fragments of spaces, people, and events lived through during and after the hurricane, in order to create among readers, Puerto Ricans, and the community at large a conjugation of humanity.
So what was Hurricane Maria for Puerto Ricans? Each one has their story: some would write of how their homes were left under the rushing waters while they were trapped between a wood plank and a piece of furniture as the hurricane passed by overhead; they would tell of how they saw the roof of their house take flight and disappear into the over 160-mile-per-hour winds; others would tell, in tears, of how they saw relatives drown while trying to save a grandparent or a child. All Puerto Ricans would tell you how the lights were out for months, how food could not reach their homes. I could tell you how the door to the house burst out of its frame, how the neighbor’s roof collapsed into his home; how, months later, politicians took advantage of the supplies and community aid for their campaigns. In this regard, Santos-Febres succeeds in capturing a fleeting image of what happened in Puerto Rico: long lines, disaster, corruption, anxiety, losses, destruction, uncertainty, an apocalyptic scene the like of which nobody imagined because, as Mayra explains in “De otros vientos huracanados,” the chronicle that makes up the first part of Antes que llegue la luz, Puerto Ricans paid no heed to the news or the forecasts because, for decades, hurricanes had seemed to skirt around Puerto Rico just before touching the archipelago. Puerto Ricans sang their country’s praises as the island blessed by God, and therefore Hurricane Maria (like all past hurricanes) would eventually swerve to the north or the south. Many repeated these words, even when, a week before Maria, Hurricane Irma lashed northeastern Puerto Rico and left much of Borinquén in the dark.
In turns, the chapters tell the writer’s personal story from hours before Maria hit the Puerto Rican archipelago until the lights finally came back on in her house months later. Every other chapter consists of a brief chronicle from friends, colleagues, workers with the now privatized Electrical Energy Authority (AEE), and everyday Puerto Ricans who experienced the hurricane in various ways. In the style of little flashbacks from some apocalyptic movie telling the characters’ stories before the day of reckoning, Mayra narrates the tales of her children, Aidara and Lucían, based on the relationships she had with their respective (and, seemingly, failed) fathers; of the literary colleagues who worked together to create cultural projects to cultivate literature in the archipelago; of her relationship with Gabriel García Márquez, el Gabo, that starts with a jangueo (Puerto Rican for “hanging out”) and ends in silence; of her friendship with Alexa, whose penthouse has been destroyed and who likewise loses contact with her son; and, perpetually and in almost all these stories, of her role as a funded, well-educated, award-winning writer and speaker who is constantly traveling to el norte. These memories, which interrupt the disaster and take place in one of the colony’s most privileged neighborhoods, enter into the narrative to bear witness to human circumstances that might not normally include a person with all this author’s recognition, and to breathe life into what Puerto Ricans faced before, during, and after the disaster—because, indeed, in Puerto Rico we mingle at the party, capitalism drowns all dreamers, and your friends are left imprinted on your skin.
Once the hurricane had passed, the only thing left to do was go back outside and work side-by-side with your neighbor. Divides of political party, religion, and social class ceased to matter. Just as the hurricane ended, Puerto Ricans were in the streets, reopening highways, feeding their neighbors, getting water from strangers’ houses, sweeping the debris to one side, finding ways to help among the horror. Mayra Santos-Febres dedicates the second part of the book, titled “Las muchas voces,” along with the fourth part of the book, to lending a voice to Puerto Ricans and telling their stories of survival through the hurricane, precisely because throughout the chronicles of her own personal experience she speaks about how and when she visited different communities to give away books and educational materials at schools throughout the archipelago. She found people who recognized her; they would say to her, “You must be the writer. Please, writer, write, tell my story; writer, write…”
Finally, Mayra Santos-Febres tells of how she did what over a hundred thousand Puerto Ricans did after Hurricane Maria: how she got a plane ticket and went looking for light in el norte. Mayra and her children reached Connecticut, and, after a few days spent celebrating light, peace, and harmony, Mayra buckled down to her role as a writer, bringing together the Puerto Rican diaspora for a series of events that would benefit the country. “Do not send any more supplies, Mariposa. They are not letting them through,” Mayra warns one of her collaborators in el norte, since many supply drops were held up at ports and military bases. Nonetheless, Mariposa explains, Puerto Ricans and nuyores (Puerto Rican New Yorkers) kept on sending supplies just to feel that they were helping. Mayra’s argument is valid: we needed more hardworking hands, we needed Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico.
Then Mayra finds out, thanks to the father of one of her children, that the lights have finally come back on in her neighborhood. I remember when the light came back to my street a month after the hurricane. In San Sebastián, the mayor had created his own brigade to bring light back to communities, but in other areas it took months, even a year for the lights to come back on. In my home, we celebrated as if we had won the lottery. Along with the light came smiles and harmony, but also, and above all, hope.
Antes que llegue la luz is one of many works of art to have emerged since Hurricane Maria. The disaster has been used in many disciplines to reveal the pain of four thousand deaths ignored by the corrupt government (then led by Governor Ricardo Roselló), the roofs that have still not been repaired today, the hunger suffered by thousands of Puerto Ricans in the highlands. This pain has been communicated through music, art, and the written word. Antes que llegue la luz succeeds in representing the experience of thousands of Puerto Ricans: it joins the conversation about the island’s lasting vulnerability, it exposes the colonial system’s corruption, and, along with so much else, it sets the scene for the horrors we lived through during that terrible, unpredictable, and imminent phenomenon.